The organization, founded in 2018 by former MaRS Discovery District executive Lekan Olawoye, seen here on July 29, 2020, will announce a group of partnerships Thursday morning. FRED LUM/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Canada’s largest network of Black tech professionals is partnering with some of the country’s biggest companies to better advance the careers of Black employees and combat systemic racism.

The Black Professionals in Tech Network (BPTN) was founded in 2018 by former MaRS Discovery District executive Lekan Olawoye. The organization will announce a group of partnerships Thursday morning, in which major companies will work with the network to identify ways to remove racist biases from hiring and promotion practices.

Those partners include Toronto-Dominion Bank; telecom giants Bell Canada and Rogers; and tech firms such as social-media company Hootsuite and clinical-care company PointClickCare. While some of these partners, such as TD, have long had a relationship with Mr. Olawoye and his network, he said in an interview this week that they’re collectively working to go out of their way to build ties with Black communities to expand hiring networks and move beyond lip service.

“We are very wary of companies who just come and say, ‘We just want to do an event with you’ – clearly that’s a brand play, and we’re not interested in that,” Mr. Olawoye said. Of the partnership announcement, he added: “These are the companies who are doing the work with the Black tech ecosystem. … Other companies should take that approach.”

Many businesses recruit employees by tapping into existing networks and promote talent by seeking familiar candidates – and in the corporate world, these practices have long favoured white candidates. With more than 10,000 members and a focus on talent advancement, Mr. Olawoye said the BPTN hopes to work with these organizations to make their workplaces more equitable.

He uses the example of sports teams, who send scouts around the globe to find the best talent. “In industry, we don’t scour the earth for good talent – we look for the most convenient talent,” he said. “We realize the nuance here is that there’s a network gap.”

TD Bank has had a relationship with the BPTN for about a year and a half. Its vice-president of technology solutions, Colleen Ward, said in an interview that the bank’s relationship with the BPTN has helped it shape its hiring network and corporate learning programs to be more inclusive for Black, as well as Indigenous, people.

Ms. Ward, who is of Jamaican heritage, said there is an emphasis on hiring from both communities, and on “making sure there is a concentrated focus on their skill sets, their visibility, their networking, their sponsorship and their career counselling.”

Mr. Olawoye got the idea for the BPTN while he was an executive in charge of talent development at Toronto’s MaRS startup hub last decade. He’d often speak with corporate leaders who were dismayed about not finding talented people they could hire.

Yet when Mr. Olawoye brought this up to people he knew in Black communities willing to take on those roles, often already having C-Suite credentials, they said they weren’t being considered. “There was a disconnect in the pipeline,” Mr. Olawoye said. He now runs his own talent-development company, Talent X.

Now, with more than 10 staff building its network and working with partners, the BPTN also recruits executives to mentor Black tech workers and holds events, including a global digital summit this October. Its speakers will include LinkedIn vice-president Sabry Tozin, TD associate vice-president of technology Nkechi Nwafor-Robinson and Salesforce vice-president Reggie Marable.

MaRS has focused efforts on diversity in hiring for some time, CEO Yung Wu said in an interview, but he acknowledged the organization was comprised of fewer Black people than represented in the Canadian population – less than 2 per cent of MaRS’s roster, versus about 3.5 per cent of the Canadian population.

“The fact is that we haven’t been intentional about this particular dimension – and if anything really came to light after the George Floyd incident, it’s that systemic racism isn’t just the stuff you can point at that’s obvious,” Mr. Wu said. “It’s all of the stuff that gets in the way of us being intentional about constructing an organization that should be far more equitable.”

Mr. Wu said he looked forward to engaging with the BPTN to improve its network and hiring practices. Doing so he said, would help elevate the national tech sector and take excuses out of the equation when it comes to hiring. He also said the organization would put a similar focus on hiring Indigenous peoples.

Sandeep Tatla, PointClickCare’s vice-president in charge of diversity and inclusion, had been in touch with Mr. Olawoye prior to joining the scale-up tech company earlier this year, and said she reconnected with him after Mr. Floyd was killed by a police officer in Minneapolis. “We were thinking about what we were doing around Black tech talent, and the current reality really gave an opportunity for Lekan and I to think about how we can do things differently,” Ms. Tatla said.

On top of tapping into the BPTN network, she said the organization and PointClickCare leaders will have quarterly meetings to discuss Black experiences in the company, and to create spaces where Black employees can safely discuss company barriers or biases.

Several corporate initiatives to combat anti-Black racism have emerged in Canada since Mr. Floyd was killed in May and the Black Lives Matter movement saw a massive public resurgence. In June, a group of CEOs led by Kingsdale Advisors chair Wes Hall launched the BlackNorth Initiative, which has received more than 200 company pledges to take steps to combat systemic racism and boost Black representation in leadership.

The Globe and Mail, July 30, 2020